By Gene Openshaw
Flip on the hotel TV or thumb through a local newspaper, and you'll see that sports are big in Italy — but not American sports. There's little interest in baseball, American football, or hockey. Instead, Italian sports idols are soccer players, skiers, cyclists, and motorcycle riders.
Italy's undisputed number-one sport is soccer (called il calcio). All other sports are a distant second, and on the night of a big match, expect to see sports bars jammed with loud fans, followed by a horn-blowing parade of cars after a victory. (For more on soccer in Italy, see Understanding Football in Italy).
In the home country of Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Maserati, another popular spectator sport is motor racing — not stock cars like American NASCAR, but Formula One/Grand Prix. And since many Italians grow up zipping through narrow streets on small Vespas, it's little wonder that motorcycle racing (moto) is a major sport here. Sports that are only somewhat popular in America — tennis, golf, winter sports, and Olympic events (track and field) — are even more popular in Italy, especially if it involves homegrown talent.
Then there are the truly European sports — particularly cycling. During the 25-day Giro d'Italia, the entire route takes on a festive atmosphere. And Italians, who routinely play bocce in their parks and piazzas, also watch the pros do it on TV.
Europe is catching on to new sports trends emerging from America, like extreme sports (motocross, snowboarding, skateboarding) or beach volleyball. And America's "big three" are growing, if slowly. The NFL has a European "farm league" for trying out new talent, with teams in many European cities — but none in Italy. Basketball, however, is fast becoming a major Italian sport. Fans carry on with soccer-style rowdiness, and the Italian teams groom players and coaches who go on to careers in the NBA.
Gene Openshaw is the co-author of several Rick Steves guidebooks.